Every year, hundreds of salmon-seeking bald eagles flock to the breathtaking Squamish River just an hour north of Vancouver, providing locals with some of the best bird watching on the continent.
About an hour north of bustling Vancouver lies a small, cozy mountain settlement called Squamish. Though its human population is just under 20,000, the town is home to one of the world’s largest populations of wintering bald eagles. The majestic birds migrate each year for the spawning freshwater salmon that dwell in the depths of the ice-cold Squamish River in an area called Brackendale.
When I embarked on my journey up to Squamish, suffice it to say I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never been much of a bird person — definitely not a bird watcher — nor did I know very much about bald eagles. Dark body, hooked beak, head as snowy-white as the mountain peaks surrounding me — those were my indicators. Massive and beautiful, bald eagles are known to be quite elusive where I’m from (the Mid-Atlantic). I’d seen probably less than five in my lifetime.
Well, that certainly changed after my adventure up north. I left Vancouver in the early hours of a cold, wet, undeniably Pacific Northwest November morning, my eyes glued to my window as the car wound its way along the Howe Sound, past craggy coastline, spits of fir-strewn islands, and snow-blanketed mountains. My cheery driver, David, filled me in on everything from Vancouver’s peak tourist seasons to the difference between Vancouver, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver, to the vibrant sustainable seafood industry and rich history of the region.
When I arrived in Squamish, low clouds were just beginning to hug the mountains, shrouding their freshly snow-capped peaks in a transfixing blue-gray haze. I made a quick stop at Fergie’s Cafe, a local institution and a really charming joint tucked into a refurbished wooden trailer on a cabin-studded riverside property. After cozying next to a crackling wood stove fire and downing a couple cups of hot coffee and the best salmon benedict I’ve ever had, I departed to meet my Canadian Outback Rafting Company tour guide. When I arrived to meet the team and my fellow bird watchers, we suited up in what I can only describe as all the rubber in Canada. This entailed full rubber waders, a rubber jacket, a life vest, rubber boots, a hat, and gloves. At first I thought this seemed a bit like overkill, but as we drove from the company’s home base down toward the misty Squamish River, the rain strengthened, and I realized that head-to-toe rubber was the only reasonable way to go.
It had to be raining for the eagle spotting excursion to be the experience that it was. And that’s not even because I’m one of those people who gets swept up in the romance of a stormy, gray sky; there was just something about the combination of gale-force winds, drifts of thick fog, cold raindrops, and low clouds that made the expedition such a thrill. Having been snuggled into the comfort of my hotel in downtown Vancouver just hours before, I’d suddenly been transported into a totally different world: one of rugged mountain peaks; rushing, salmon-filled waters; and gigantic birds. (Picture average wingspans of six to seven feet.)
Once at the riverside, we unloaded our raft from a trailer and helped our savvy and spirited guide, Matt, wheel it down to the water’s edge. The raft itself was much smaller than I’d anticipated, considering there were five of us on board. I was a little nervous to sit up on the edge of that thing and float down a rushing river, but Matt assured us it was perfectly stable.
Before heaving my rubber-clad self into the raft, I looked down at my feet and saw a salmon washed up on the shore. It was at least two-thirds the length of my arm. My jaw dropped and stayed that way as I looked up and across the river, spotting four massive eagles flying between the trees, popping in and out of a huge nest, not giving a moment’s notice to the bright yellow raft that was pushing off into the water. “Eagles!” I blurted out before I could stop myself, turning the heads around me. Despite the fact that spotting eagles is a pretty frequent occurrence in Squamish this time of year, I noticed that locals (I was the only out-of-towner on the raft) were still just as captivated by the imposing birds as I was.
Once I’d finished my internal fit over not being able to snap more than a couple photos due to the rain (it wasn’t a cute, wipe the drops off your phone kind of rain, it was the type that left mascara streaks and made visible dents on the water’s surface), I settled into the realization that it didn’t matter, because photos couldn’t truly do Squamish's natural beauty justice. And a camera definitely couldn’t capture the overwhelming sense of how awe-inspiring these birds are when they’re just a few boat lengths away from you.
The eagles were everywhere as we drifted downriver: up in the trees, sitting along the beach, picking at pink salmon on the shores, drying out their expansive wings under the cover of the brush. Despite the rain, wind, and quick current, there was something undeniably tranquil about observing the birds as they went about their routines. We saw an abundance of both male and female bald eagles, as well as quite a few fledglings. Matt informed us that bald eagles are known to mate for life, and the babies will stay in the nest between 10 and 12 weeks. Nests are usually around four to five feet wide and deep. According to the National Eagle Center, the largest bald eagle nest ever recorded weighed a whopping three tons.
After about 30 minutes of floating along, we rounded a wide bend. “Right,” said Matt. “A good time for some hot chocolate.” I was relieved and accepted it with a big smile, eager to warm up my hands as the temperature had begun to drop, and the pelting raindrops seemed to only be getting stronger. It was around this time that Matt mentioned there are often seals in the river. Sure enough, as though he’d heard his name, up popped a seal, staring right at us, smizing like he had a secret. He proceeded to follow us playfully down the river for the rest of the trip, a few others joining him along the way, all seemingly perplexed at the spectacle of a big yellow rubber raft ambling across the water in the freezing rains of November in British Columbia.
By the time we neared the end of the river, after a full hour, I’d seen dozens of eagles — probably close to 70 or so, though it was hard to keep count. In a world that has lost so much to the detrimental effects of pollution, sweeping urbanization, and environmental mistreatment, it was refreshing to discover a pocket of the Earth that felt untouched by human negligence. Seeing such beautiful animals existing, living, and thriving in their natural habitat was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Where to Nest
The DOUGLAS, Autograph Collection
Located in the recently opened Parq Vancouver complex, the DOUGLAS hotel offers sleek, cozy accommodations with an emphasis on wellness and nature’s valued place in the Vancouver experience. Close to top-tier restaurants like Honey Salt, Victor, and 1886 and a short walk from lively neighborhoods like Yaletown, guests can soak up Vancouver’s rich cosmopolitan environment while enjoying a welcoming, wholesome atmosphere.
The perfect combination of elegance and comfort, the Shangri-La Vancouver’s well-appointed rooms are the definition of a luxury stay. Guests can expect sophisticated dark woods and Asian-inspired decor, bountiful amenities, an in-house restaurant with a menu by Michelin-starred chef Jean George, and a top-notch staff that goes above and beyond to ensure guests’ comfort while staying downtown.
Where to Feast
YEW at the Four Seasons
Must try: Sablefish (crab and ricotta ravioli, asparagus, artichokes)
Burdock & Co
Chef Andrea Carlson presents a strong sense of place through Pacific Northwest-inspired cuisine. Located in a cozy, candlelit space, Burdock & Co features a seasonal menu of innovative dishes and organic wines that celebrate local and unique ingredients.
Must try: Elk Bavette (tomatillo and epazote chimichurri, chanterelle mushroom, potato cream), roasted cabbage (dill cream, cured herring roe)
Located in buzzy, cosmopolitan Yaletown, the menu at Minami weds traditional and contemporary takes on some of the freshest sushi Vancouver has to offer.
Must try: Salmon Oshi sushi (pressed B.C. wild sockeye salmon, jalapeño, Miku sauce)